Commentary: Race Speech Models Holy Conferencing

April 04, 2008

(Editor's Note: This UMNS Commentary comes on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)


By Bishop Sally Dyck*

April 4, 2008


U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's recent speech on race in America was a powerful and electrifying moment in recent oratorical history. Whatever it does for his 2008 presidential campaign, it stimulated conversation about race in hallways, at dinner tables, and even on late-night television shows, superseding topics [such as] gubernatorial resignations and affairs. I hope that we can keep these conversations going in the future, whether or not we agree with his perspective.


But I also wonder if the example of talking about a sensitive and often divisive topic might have something to teach us as we gather for the United Methodist General Conference. Over the last year, I have worked to promote the practice of "holy conferencing" at General Conference. I think that it's been difficult for some of us to imagine just what holy conferencing would really look like in the give-and-take legislative and plenary sessions at General Conference.


One thing that holy conferencing is not is the avoidance or suppression of conversation about sensitive and divisive issues. Obama addressed a hot-button issue that most of America can't talk about in the most cordial of environments, much less in a context with high stakes for his campaign.


As I have discussed holy conferencing with others over the last year, I have sensed that some have interpreted holy conferencing to mean "making nice" and therefore not talking about sensitive and potentially divisive issues. Nothing could be further from the way in which I imagine holy conferencing to work. If we're going to avoid difficult topics, we're really not holy conferencing. Avoiding crucial conversation is just as destructive as conversation laden with inflammatory language. We must speak about our own convictions honestly.


This commentary is not intended to recommend a candidate for office, but rather to suggest a way of talking about difficult issues. Obama carefully weighed his words before speaking them. While denouncing the "inflammatory" rhetoric of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he [himself] never resorted to inflammatory language about anyone – Wright, whites, blacks, his own family members or his political opposition. He was gracious because all of the above-mentioned are in some way a part of who he is by water or blood, faith or family. He doesn't have the luxury of cutting any of them off, because to do so is to cut off something of himself and his heritage. He is one with them and they are one with him; for better or for worse. Isn't that what the body of Christ is like?


Another way

It's an interesting coincidence that Wright's first name is Jeremiah. His style of confronting injustice undeniably lives up to some of the Hebrew prophet's style of confronting the principalities and powers of his day. We can argue that when there is injustice or immorality, such styles are in order. Jesus turned over the tables in the temple when he found injustice being perpetrated.


The point the senator was making is that it is time for the United States to try to resolve difficult matters another way. I would say the same for The United Methodist Church.


Obama didn't just promote his own self-interest (winning the Democratic nomination) but raised a long-overdue conversation to a higher plane. That's why it was [referred to] the next day in The New York Times, by writer Janny Scott, as one of the most significant speeches on race in America given by a politician since the Civil War. One thing his comments had in common with President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural speech was the acknowledgement of pain and loss by all parties. Lincoln didn't gloat over the impending end of the war, elevating the side that was going to win – which would have made losers of the other.


At General Conference, there will be some whose preferred way prevails and others whose way doesn't prevail. Some people will feel like winners and others like losers. Yet how we talk about each other and to each other makes a big difference in how we live with each other. For us in the church, how we talk to and about each other affects our witness to the power of Christ in our world.


Lifting the conversation

Repeatedly I have heard young people in our country, as well as in our church, say that they desire another way of solving problems and talking about deeply held beliefs.


It was the Young People's Assembly in Johannesburg, South Africa, that resurrected the guidelines of holy conferencing from previous conversations on sexuality in The United Methodist Church. These became the basis for the guidelines presented to us at this year's General Conference. Will we continue to use the previous styles of avoidance or inflammatory confrontation in working out our differences? Or will we consider some other ways to lift the conversation and draw people toward each other rather than drive them apart?


As we approach General Conference, we should make Bishop Rueben Job's book Three Simple Rules our guide as we figure out what holy conferencing looks like for us. He says:


I must seek what is best for those whose position and condition may be far different than my vision for them. It will mean that I will seek to heal the wounds of my sisters and brothers, no matter if their social position, economic condition, educational achievement, or lifestyle is radically different from mine. It will mean that the words and acts that wound and divide will be changed to words and acts that heal and bring together. It will mean that movements that seek to divide and conquer will become movements that seek to unite and empower all. It will mean that the common good will be my first thought and what is good for me will become a secondary thought.


Will we as The United Methodist Church demonstrate holy conferencing as well as – or better than – a politician on the campaign trail?


*Dyck is Episcopal leader of The United Methodist Church's Minnesota Area.